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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Maskhadov Convinced of Success

GROZNY — Since he was chased out of Grozny by Russian artillery a year ago, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov has been a hunted man, hiding out in the southern mountains of his rebellious republic.

To Moscow, which deposed his government and imposed federal control over most of Chechnya, he is a bandit and a terrorist. But tens of thousands of troops have been unable to extinguish his much smaller band of determined fighters. And Maskhadov, a former Soviet military officer who was elected president in 1997, remains defiant.

In a rare communication to a Western newspaper from his mountain hide-out, Maskhadov — responding on audiotape to written questions from the Los Angeles Times — predicted this month that his forces will deal Moscow a humiliating defeat in Chechnya.

Saying his loyalists were fighting with "extreme hatred" against "barbarism," Maskhadov asserted that federal forces will suffer the same fate in Chechnya as the Soviet Red Army did in Afghanistan more than a decade ago. "Their army will leave this place in shame," he said.

But Maskhadov said he was also interested in negotiating with Russia for the sake of the Chechen people. Referring to a resolution by the Council of Europe parliamentary assembly for an immediate cessation of combat and talks without conditions, Maskhadov said: "We are ready. … We are not rejecting contacts. The ball is in the Russian court."

The official Kremlin position is that the war is over, the rebels are desperate and all that is needed now is to mop up the last "ringleaders" — specifically Maskhadov, Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev and the Arab warlord who goes by the name Khattab.

On Monday, President Vladimir Putin went further, announcing that troop levels will be reduced in Chechnya and that the Federal Security Service will take over command of the "anti-terrorist" operations.

Beslan Gantemirov, the Moscow-installed mayor working behind heavy security barricades in Grozny, said the military campaign has been so successful there is absolutely no reason to talk to Maskhadov or his representatives.

"Why hold talks with a man who has lost all influence and power?" he said, according to a report Friday in the newspaper Izvestia.

Maskhadov, 49, was a Soviet colonel who returned to his native republic in 1991 to fight for independence under Chechen leader Dzhokar Dudayev.

After Dudayev's death in a 1996 missile attack, Maskhadov — then considered the most moderate candidate — was elected to a four-year term as president in January 1997 with 59 percent of the vote. He is expected to drop the title after this month but continue to call himself commander in chief of the rebel forces.

According to a Times representative who met with Maskhadov this month, the Chechen president appears haggard and weary after his year in hiding. The meeting was abruptly canceled just after it began because aides believed that federal forces were closing in. Maskhadov taped his replies, which were passed to the newspaper through the intermediary.

On his audiotape, Maskhadov spoke calmly and quietly, saying he was certain that the Russians will be forced to the negotiating table by an ongoing campaign of small guerrilla attacks designed to wear down and eventually drive their troops out of Chechnya.

He charged that federal forces have committed summary executions of civilians and that they routinely steal from Chechens: "They have stripped three skins from these emaciated people." The very harshness of the occupation is influencing more people to take up arms on the separatists' side, he said.

As an example, he claimed that two women who recently lost their husbands asked to be trained as suicide bombers. Maskhadov said he answered them: "Go home. Raise your children. Chechnya will find men to avenge their deaths. … But I had a very hard time talking them out of it."

Chechens won a degree of independence from Moscow as a result of a bloody 1994-96 war. But federal forces invaded Chechnya again in September 1999.

By January 2000, Maskhadov was forced to abandon his capital, which had been bombed and shelled to ruins. On Feb. 6, the Russian flag was raised over the city center after the rebels had fled into the mountains.

Maskhadov said his fighters already have plans to retake Grozny one day, as they did successfully during the previous war. It will happen, he said, "if not in a month, then in a year. If not in a year, then in 10 years."

He seemed pessimistic that the conflict will end soon. "They have staked everything on force, and they cannot bring themselves to admit that they have achieved nothing and should stop. … The young leader of Russia does not know what to do."